Movies in 2018: Capitalist art cannibalizing itself
Jacksonville, FL – In 2018, I saw fewer movies in theaters than any time since age 3 or 4. It wasn’t just because the high price of tickets and snacks practically requires taking out a small loan. There’s a real lack of original storytelling in American films – especially horror and science fiction – and I’ve gotten tired of countless remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, sequels to prequels, and so on.
It wasn’t all bad. 2018 gave us some solid films worth watching, and I’ll highlight a few of my favorites, admittedly, mostly sci-fi and horror, below. But in general, Hollywood continues to cannibalize its past successes (and failures) in search of more profit rather than telling unique stories. Movies look better than they did 30 years ago, but they’re generally worse – and they’re over-produced as hell.
Before looking at some of the year’s best, it’s worth considering why movies in the U.S. seem stale and less original. American cinema is experiencing the classic contradictions at work in every capitalist market: a trend towards monopoly and a crisis of overproduction. In the last decade, we’ve seen media and entertainment become even more concentrated in four giant corporations, expressed most recently in Disney buying up Fox in 2018. As movie and television production companies get gobbled up by larger entities, so do their intellectual properties (franchises, series, characters). This is a recipe for remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and everything in-between as new owners try to squeeze more profit out of old ideas.
Adaptations from existing material are nothing new. From the dawn of major motion pictures, producers have mined classic novels and literature for material to adapt for the big screen. Starting in the 1970s, Hollywood saw an explosion of movies “based on a true story” – an often dubious claim that nevertheless proves profitable today. But this process has come full-circle in the 21st century, producing outrageous situations like five separate Spider-Man film series, themselves adaptations of a comic book, spanning eight movies by three studios in the last 16 years – costing (and earning) many billions of dollars.
Film researcher Stephen Follows found that sequels and prequels accounted for nearly one-third of the top 100 grossing movies in 2017 – about three times the level of ten years ago. The number of remakes and reboots have declined since its peak in 2006, but only because sequels to the original remakes have taken their place. Profit-hungry studios see existing brands and franchises as safe bets, hoping that nostalgia for a bygone time before the Great Recession, before the ‘War on Terror,’ before Trump (childhood in the case of the coveted 18-35 age demographic) will move asses into theater seats.
My top movies of 2018
It’s fitting, then, that the best film I saw this year was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. It’s the most pro-union, anti-capitalist movie made in the U.S. in several decades, and it’s an original story that features a sci-fi twist worthy of the Twilight Zone’s best episodes. But Sorry to Bother You isn’t just great political art. It perfectly speaks to the struggles facing the working class youth of today in an age dominated by monopoly corporations like Amazon and flooded with social media, low wages, high rent, and soul-crushing jobs. I want to screen it for a union movie night this year with some of my Teamster brothers.
Staying on sci-fi, Annihilation told a story remarkably derivative of an old Soviet film, Stalker- just with more action. But while Stalker grappled with profound and disturbing changes taking place in the 1980s USSR, Annihilation mostly looks cool. It’s hard to know what, if anything, the writers (novel or screenplay) wanted to say as a military team of five women, led by Natalie Portman, explore a disturbing extraterrestrial ‘zone’ created when a meteor hits Florida.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One at least directs its anger at corporate America, even though it’s probably the worst offender on this list in terms of unoriginality. Most of the film takes place in a video game world choked full of characters and references to classic Steven Spielberg movies. The game is a virtual reality simulator, which players use to escape the grim, dystopian poverty and hopelessness of the real world. Beneath the pop culture naval-gazing, it delivers a timely message about the internet: There’s no escape from the misery of capitalism, and there’s no substitute for real-world struggle.
Shifting gears, I’m really tired of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Black Panther made a lot of best-of lists, but whichever side you came down on the whole T’Challa/Killmonger debate, the story still wasn’t that interesting. Avengers: Infinity War was a huge action-packed spectacle… that you won’t really understand if you haven’t watched at least a dozen MCU movies over the last decade. Venom, produced by Sony outside the MCU, wasn’t exactly original but it stood out as a back-to-basics superhero movie from a simpler time (i.e. 20 years ago). I enjoyed seeing the hulking alien anti-hero take down a scumbag Silicon Valley CEO clearly modeled after Elon Musk, and apparently so did Chinese audiences, who turned Venom into a socialist meme online.
The biggest surprise of the year was how much I enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ironically, the Star Wars movies most dependent on nostalgia for the originals ( Rogue One) have turned out much better than the new episodes in the series. They feature poor and working class characters at the lead and explore the social texture of the Star Wars universe – something the originals mostly skipped.
In horror, the handful of decent flicks this year also capitalized on nostalgia rather than breaking new ground. Summer of ‘84 pushed the retro-style of Netflix’s Stranger Things series in a different direction, offering a terrifying look at suburban crime “right next door” and police in the 80s. The Halloween sequel/reboot hit enough right notes to breathe enough life into a long-dead franchise for one last scare. Netflix’s Bird Box, which took the internet by storm in December, basically just recycled the concept of M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening - and admittedly, it did a lot better with the material. Unsane was an entertaining gimmick thriller, filmed entirely on an iPhone, that basically remade last year’s A Cure for Wellness, which itself was a glorified remake of Shutter Island, which itself was a remake of...
Two final movies worth mentioning that exceeded my expectations:
Hereditary was marketed as “the scariest movie since The Exorcist” – like I haven’t heard that one before. But while there are call-backs to Rosemary’s Baby and 2015’s The Witch, the film tells a genuinely disturbing story about untreated multi-generational mental illness and religious fanaticism.
With so many outstanding films to his name, Spike Lee is probably one of the ten best directors in American cinema. But his recent string of questionable films led me to expect Black Klansman, his newest effort, to really blow it. The film, loosely “based on a true story,” centers on the first African American officer in the Colorado Spring police department, who spearheads an undercover campaign to take down the city’s violent Ku Klux Klan chapter. Knowing that white supremacists and police forces are often joined at the hip – if not in their membership, certainly in their willingness to brutalize Black people – I wrote it off as slight-of-hand pro-cop propaganda. Parts of the true story are exaggerated, and the politics are messy, but overall the film worked, especially in light of 2017’s deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.
Overall, I’d call 2018 one of the weakest years for movies in recent memory. But for socialists, organizers and activists, it’s worth keeping up with the big movies, music and TV shows. Films like Sorry to Bother You are rare, but they’re great jumping-off points for important discussions about capitalism, unions and the working class.